The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness
- Friday, May 14, 2010
Why are women so unhappy?
In 1963, Journalist and political activist Betty Friedan published a book that was the catalyst behind the women's movement in the United States. It was the book that "pulled the trigger on history." Friedan had conducted a questionnaire with the women gathered at her 15 year college reunion. She concluded that although these women were doing everything that society said would bring them happiness - that is, getting and staying married, staying home to raise kids, cooking meals and cleaning house, homemaking and home decorating, volunteering - that there were hints of dissatisfaction lingering beneath the surface of their picture-perfect lives. Her question was, "Why are women so unhappy?"
Friedan called the unhappiness of women "the problem that has no name." She pointed her finger at the male-female relationship and theorized that it was to blame. If only woman could leave the traditional role of homemaker behind, be educated and participate in the workplace on the same basis as man, be free to express herself sexually without any restraints, and have society free her from the burden of bearing and caring for children, THEN she would be happy. If woman could dictate the rules, then she and the whole of society would be much better off … and woman's unhappiness would fade like a garishly patterned cotton drape under the touch of the summer sun.
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and brownies, lay beside her husband at night - she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - "Is this all?"…
If I am right, the problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many American women today is not a matter of loss of femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. It is far more important than anyone recognizes. It is the key to these other new and old problems which have been torturing women and their husbands and children, and puzzling their doctors and educators for years. It may well be the key to our future as a nation and a culture. We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: "I want something more than my husband and my children and my home."
[Women must] stretch and stretch until their own efforts will tell them who they are. They will not need the regard of boy or man to feel alive. And when women do not need to live through their husbands and children… this may be the next step in human evolution.
Who know what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?… It has barely begun, the search of women for themselves. But the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.
Betty Friedan, 1963
All of Friedan's goals for women have been achieved. As Susan Etheridge, for the New York Times notes, "American women are wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were at that time. They're more likely to work outside the home, and more likely to earn salaries comparable to men's when they do. They can leave abusive marriages and sue sexist employers. They enjoy unprecedented control over their own fertility. On some fronts - graduation rates, life expectancy and even job security - men look increasingly like the second sex."
But ironically, feminism's quest for women's happiness has only resulted in a greater level of unhappiness for women. In the sixties, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of "the problem with no name," American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that statistic has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, while female happiness has declined. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.
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